Covid-19 2, Niki’s Graduation 0

Yesterday, I was meant to be in Nottingham walking across the graduation stage to complete my PhD studies journey finally. Of course, this was supposed to have almost two years ago, except that Covid-19 lockdowns meant that this was not possible. The university had sent us our certificates (so, I’m already a doctor, just not robed) back in 2020, with this IOU.

Blue card with a bunch of text, headlined "We owe you one Graduation".

Unfortunately, Covid-19 has hit again and I was unable to attend the ceremony. Of course, as many people have reminded me, there are no official rules stopping me from attending. But I could not in all my conscience attend an event – with family members and good friends, at that – knowingly spreading the virus all around. In any case, I would have been too weak. Monday was probably the worst day of my symptoms so I couldn’t have trained over to Nottingham anyway.

I feel sad that I was not able to join Abi, Dave and Rob, who looked lovely in their robes. I also feel really bad that my tai che and Mizuan – my oldest sister and brother-in-law – had made specific plans to be in the UK on these dates to attend the ceremony.

Hopefully, the university will reply soon to let me know if I can attend the August ceremony instead. I’ve also contacted Ede & Ravencroft about my gown to see if they’ll let me change ceremonies. Ibis Hotel has offered to allow me to change my date, so hopefully it’ll all work out and that catching Covid-19 isn’t going to put me out of pocket.

I’ve abandoned this blog for a while now, what with work and all, but I thought getting Covid (again!) was worth recording. This is especially since I created this to record what life was like living through this particular pandemic. So, here are some facts: I was one of four people who got it during a short getaway last week (not sure which one of us brought it in, but my LFT test the morning I went over was negative). The others had recovered from it fairly recently, so they all didn’t get reinfected.

A couple of my friends didn’t have any symptoms, but I did. And while it’s been certainly milder than when I had it pre-vaccine back in 2020, it’s not been ‘mild’ at all. I can’t say any of the colds (or even flu) I’ve ever had in my life quite compares to this. But I am slightly more functional than I was back during round one.

It’s been about 6-7 days now, and it’s driving me crazy. I can’t wait for a negative test and feeling better so that I can get back to life (and work – marking hell has begun).

My tribute to Jit Murad, for The Star

Screenshot of the published page for this story in The Star.

The Star invited me to write a tribute to my friend, Jit. This article was originally published here. The following is the original text I had written.

BY NIKI CHEONG

Growing up as an aspiring writer, I wanted just to be like Jit Murad. Much has been said over the years about his talent – as an actor, he was charming and charismatic, and as a comedian, he was witty and intelligent. What I loved the most, however, was Jit the writer. There was magic in the way he would craft his words, masterfully making anyone who encountered them believe that his stories were truly worth telling.

My first encounter with Jit was when he played the titular character in The Storyteller, his acclaimed musical staged in 1996. I often credit that show as being responsible for me catching the theatre bug, and it really was his effective storytelling – both in his performance and the script – that got me hooked.

By then, Jit had already written the much-celebrated Gold Rain and Hailstones, about four young adults returning to Malaysia after studying abroad. First written in 1992, Jit told us about the lives of a generation of Malaysians questioning what it meant to be part of a modernising Malaysia in a globalised world.

The play was restaged several times over the years; I finally met him in person when I was hired as assistant stage manager for its 1998 revival directed by Datuk Zahim Albakri that Jit starred in alongside Lin Jaafar.

There was a time when I could recite every line from Gold Rain, having sat through hours of rehearsals for the stagings in Kuala Lumpur, Penang and Singapore. While this came in handy for my role in the production, I was much too young and not worldly enough yet to appreciate the power of those stories.

The words are less clear in my memory now decades on, but the issues he tackled in the play has never been more present to me than in the past decade as someone who had left Malaysia, returned and left again to where I am now based in Britain. Jit’s bold and nuanced telling of difficult stories about home and belonging, and the implications of our choices as Malaysians made complicated by issues of identity, privilege, sexuality and more served both as comfort and a compass.

That the play was last restaged in 2019, directed by Gavin Yap, speaks to its longevity, and I can vouch from personal experience that it is still so pertinent and relevant all these years later.

A decade after Gold Rain was written, Dramalab – the theatre company he co-founded with Zahim to champion local plays – would produce another stellar play of Jit’s dealing with issues of family, love and belonging in ways that were unique to the Malaysian experience. Spilt Gravy on Rice would go on to win in four categories at the inaugural Cameronian Arts Awards in 2003. The topics his plays – including Visits in 2002 – dealt with not only left a significant mark in Malaysian theatre, but stamped his place in our nation’s intellectual life.

Just how did he do it? Many people have rightly attributed this to his use of humour; no doubt, he was a brilliant comedian. I remember once interviewing his friend and fellow playwright Dr. Ann Lee and asked her to describe him. Her three words has been seared into my mind all these years: “Jit is wit”.

Indeed, Jit’s wit was legendary, and he was sharp in every sense of the word. He was always quick with the jokes and some of the biggest laughs I’ve heard on productions was listening to him clapback at hecklers during his one-person shows. His humour was also so cutting. I’ve found myself many a times staring back at him dumbfounded during out chats, not knowing if I should be offended by his retort or to clap at his genius.

But he didn’t always have a completely comfortable relationship with comedy. I recall long conversations with him lamenting about people’s expectations of him to be constantly funny. At the same time, he was always a willing player when it came to the gift of laughter. The first time he met my mother, I had not thought to introduce her by name. With perfect comedy timing, he let a moment lapse and a split second before it got awkward, put out his hand for a shake and bellowed out loud, “Hi, mum!”

I believe that Jit’s use of humour to talk about complex issues in Malaysia cultural context was tactical. Granted, the cheap laughs were enticing, but more than that, he recognised that the seemingly-frivolous tool that is humour could be used efficiently to tackle issues Malaysians struggle to talk about – politics, class, race, polygamy, homosexuality and more.

One of his most renowned personas was that of Renee Choy, the flamboyant queer hairstylist “to the stars”. Using Choy’s almost-flippant persona subversively, Jit was able to cut through and speak to the most pertinent socio-political issues the average Malaysian faced. He did so similarly with the many characters he developed for the political revue shows the Instant Café Theatre Company, which he co-founded alongside Jo Kukathas, Andrew Leci and Zahim, produced.

I had the privilege of serving not just as Jit’s friend but also stage manager for many of the productions he performed in the late 1990s and throughout the noughties. I believe those years to be the time when his star was shining the brightest.

While many had front-row seats to his shows, I was lucky to have been able to enjoy his artistry from behind the curtains. I was able to witness the spirited Jit just seconds before he was due on stage as he magically transitioned into that majestic performer that he was celebrate for as the stage lights came on.

In that sense, Jit wasn’t just a skilled craftsman when putting words together as a playwright, but also when he was spitting out the lines from a script (or ad-libbing) when performing. That storyteller is the Jit I will always remember – my fondest memories of him were the late nights out in a restaurant in Bangsar or a lazy weekend in his home where he would regale me with stories from his life and all that he knows. I was always struck by how at the tips of his long wiry fingers were so much knowledge of the world.

Over the years, Jit told me many stories of the people he met and of those whom he loved. He shared with me his worldliness and lived experiences, which for a long time served as a guide for me, this young 18-year-old city boy when we met, struggling with his identity and authenticity. His personal stories, and those in his writings, were accessible because at the core of it they were human stories – all of ours.

The characters he created and brought to life, and so much of his work outside of the arts, paved a way for a generation of Malaysians who didn’t always feel understood or heard. People related to his stories because he didn’t shy away from telling us about the complexities of our culture and our sense of belonging, what it means to have birth and chosen families, and what the price we sometimes pay in wanting to be accepted.

The cliched way to send a playwright off, I suppose, is to say that his writings will always live on. But for many Malaysians – whether they have had the privilege of encountering him in person or otherwise – he leaves a legacy of more than just words. And we are all the better for it.

Dr. Niki Cheong is currently Lecturer in Digital Culture and Society at King’s College London. He previously authored the column The Bangsar Boy, published in The Star.

Welcome to 2022

When I used to plan my blog posts (back in the day!), I would end the year before with some reflections of my highlights, and then start off the new year with some resolutions and goals. But I’ve not done all of that in many years now.

But since I started this blog again in 2020 to document the pandemic life, and since the pandemic is still ongoing, I wanted to document something. After all, I wasn’t in a position to do anything last new year – I was trying to recover from my Covid-19 infection.

I do have some resolutions and goals for this year – from simple ones like doing a one-month planking challenge just for the heck of it to broader ones like sending out a proposal to turn my thesis into a book. But if the past two years have thought me anything, it’s that my main resolution is to stay healthy, enjoy life and spend it with people I love.

Everything else – and there are many things of course – is secondary.

I won’t bother to list them out (the past two years have also taught me that despite best intentions, things don’t always go the way you plan it!).

So, instead of looking ahead, I’m going to look at the present. Today, I am feeling gratitude. And to document this, I have to look at the past.

I am so aware that 2021 wasn’t a great year for me personally: I kicked off the new year recovering from a virus I had spent almost 8-9 months avoiding with a vengeance. I was at a job that I was really unhappy at (but feeling guilty for being unhappy because so many of my other friends couldn’t get academic jobs). I had to go back into strict lockdowns again all on my own. I wasn’t able to return over the summer to visit my family. I had very few friends in Birmingham. I was quite miserable.

Things changed, however, and now I am grateful to 2021 for easy access to three Covid-19 vaccines that has kept me safe. I won an award for my PhD thesis from the Association of Internet Researchers, my academic home. I have a new job that I’m enjoying at the moment, and working with some brilliant colleagues. I built relationships with some great new people, and solidified some old friendships. And most significantly, I got to give my mother (and the rest of my family) a hug for the first time in over two years.

In that sense, I’ve had an extremely good year despite the hardships. And all while being in the middle of a freaking pandemic. That, in itself, I think is a win.

Happy New Year!

Getting my vaccine jab, months after catching Covid-19

It’s just about 48 hours since I got my Oxford/AstraZaneca vaccine jab, so I thought I’d share a little bit of my experience. I woke up to a post on IG from my friend Wei Hsien asking people to share how it has been for them because it can be reassuring, and that motivated me to return to this blog! I agree with him completely – lots of people are making jokes about how everyone is sharing their shots (or worse, shaming those who do). Considering the levels of vaccine hessitency and so many people being genuinely afraid, I think it’s all the more important that we normalise the idea of getting vaccinated.

That said, apologies for the slightly click-baity headline but I personally don’t know anyone who’s had Covid-19 and got the jab, so thought that there might be some value to my experience. While I know things are different for everyone, and I’m certainly not that kind of doctor, there is also a lot to be said of anecdotal sharing. In the UK, generally if you don’t have Covid-19 symptoms, have recovered, or past about 4-weeks since you tested positive/started having symptoms, you can get vaccinated. I heard that it is longer in Malaysia (the father of someone I know was turned away and asked to reschedule) before they let you take the vaccine.

Niki, wearing a maroon face mask, holding up his vaccination card and a "I've had my Covid vaccination" sticker". The sky is blue, and Niki's hair is a mess.

So, let’s start slightly at the beginning, that is a few weeks ago and not when I first came down with Covid-19. I had been waiting in anticipation for my turn to be able to register for my jab, especially when those in their 40s were slowly allowed to register. When it came down to 42 and over, I got really frustrated – I was just 3 months off the cut off date. Thankfully, within a couple of days, it went down to 40 and above.

I got a heads up about this through my friend Alex, who had seen a tweet from someone saying that although it’s not been announced yet, the system was allowing those 40 and over to register (as it turns out, the announcements were made the next morning, so I think they system was just getting ready for the new age group). I was told it was busy trying to get online bookings the next morning, so I’m glad I went in the night before and essentially got it sorted within minutes. Seems, there’s still value to Twitter!

There were slots available for the very next day, but I booked one for 10 days later, because I’m still hanging on to delusional hopes of returning to Malaysia to see my mum in the summer. So I wanted to make sure that my 11/12th week for the second dose was in August (when I’d have to be back by anyway). There is a vaccination centre just 15 minutes walk from my place (just across the street from where I did my Covid test that came back positive) at Millenium Point, so that was easy. I also booked in my second dose at the same time.

At this stage, I have to say that I am so grateful to be getting my vaccine in the UK. The NHS has been amazing with the roll-out and there was never a doubt I was going to get my jab – it was a matter of clearly waiting for my turn. I am cognisant of this because I have seen (and felt) the stress of family and friends back in Malaysia who has been struggling to get theirs. My immediate family were lucky to have all managed to get an appointment via the AstraZaneca “lottery“, and mum got hers on day one of the roll out. Still, that this had to happen this way in itself is a big shame – the Malaysian general roll-out has been dissapointing, and there is also the issue of unequal access to vaccines across the poorer countries in the world.

Instagram screenshot of Millenium Point, with a banner stating that this was the Covid-10 Vaccination Centre. There is a caption in the middle of the picture which reads: "In and out in just over 5 minutes. I #CucukMyAz also".

My appointment for the jab was on Sunday, 9 May, at 9.45am. I rocked up barely a couple of minutes before my slot and walked right in where they had my name in a list. I was then pointed from usher to usher, until I took my seat. There was one staff manning the computer asking the important questions related to my identity (no need to register etc. because we’re all on the NHS system, and also registered online when we booked our slot). Then a (presumably) nurse asked a few medical related questions, and then a quick jab and that was it – it really was as painless as everyone said! They asked if I was driving, and when I said no, I could leave immediately (you have to wait for 15 minutes at the waiting area if you’re driving). They didn’t even put a plaster on my jab spot, although one of the nurses/ushers/staff person did notice a bit of blood so called me back to get it wiped down and covered.

Now, to wait for the symptoms to hit. I must admit that I didn’t know what was going to happen to my body, but my anxieties got the better of me. I’d been dreading the jab a couple of days before not because I’m afraid of needles, but because I was having some sort of trauma flashbacks to how awful I felt when I had Covid (likely even more dramatised in my head!). I had heard from many friends and family that the usual symptoms of fever, chills, body aches and more were common, for up to 48 hours. From what people I know have encountered, symptoms tend to hit from 10 – 12 hours in with AstraZaneca (although, important to remember that everyone reacts differently).

One of the bits I was most interested in was what would this mean for someone like me who had recovered from the virus? All of the people I had spoken to or heard from have not been infected before. Would I feel nothing because my body already had antibodies and it was prepared for whatever was going to trigger the response? Or will it think it’s under attack (although no virus is injected into us), and will retaliate?

In the end, my symptoms only started hitting at hour 13, just as I was getting ready for bed. I felt the kind of feverish-sensations (slight aching, sensitive to touch) but with no temperature. I took some paracetamol and went to bed. I slept relevative okay, but my brains were hyperactive and kept waking me up asking me to check if I had any symptoms (ugh to anxieties). But about 4.30am, when the meds had worn off, I was still feeling the sensations so I took two more.

In the end, that was the worst I felt, so I got off easy. I took a couple more paracetamol in the morning yesterday because I had meetings and work to do, but survived the day without feeling much more. And I slept well last night. I woke up today feeling okay and that’s my 48 hours! I had little hints of a headache yesterday, but it wasn’t significant enough for me to even consider it a symptom – could just be from the lack of sleep!

Things are opening up in England again, and I’ve been quite anxious about it all although I’ve started socialising outdoors again recently, so this jab will go a long way in alleviating some of my anxieties – especially as we’re due to open up further next week. It’ll take some weeks before this first dose takes full effect (although i likely have antibodies already anyway from my infection), and I will still be as careful as I can in navigating life, but I am super grateful for science, health workers and everyone who has contributed to making it all a bit safer for us again.

CNY 2021

Glad I didn’t have to be alone for my first pandemic new year (especially since I actually had Covid during the other new year). My bubble buddies picked me up in time for the ‘reunion’ dinner, and I introduced them to the Yee Sang.

Giovanni’s Room

I’m trying to read a book a month this year. Part of it is just to rediscover my love for books (I never stopped loving them per se, or buying them, but I had stopped reading in general) but another part is me spending some time not staring into the screen.

With a new job, I also wanted to make sure I made space for “me time” – just lazing in bed or on the sofa, reading. I’m going to try to see if I can make sure they are all fiction, or at least, not related to my work and research but who knows if I have the time for that criteria?

Giovanni's Room book cover

Giovanni’s Room is a book I encountered by accident. When lockdown happened, I was looking to see how I could try to help support some independent book stores (I’d started buying books from Hive, for example, and quit Amazon because … oh, where do I start?).

I checked out Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham, and they were doing these book mystery boxes where you could let them throw together some books for you (valued at £50 or £100). This was at the time the Black Lives Matter protests in the US were very much part of the news cycle (which subsequently swepts across the globe) so my brief to them was that I wanted books by black writers, but also because it was Pride month, some books by diverse queer writers.

The box arrived with about 6-7 books and one of them was Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin. I’ve heard of him, of course, but not the book – which was surprising to me because it’s been called one of the greatest love stories ever written (and it has strong gay/bisexual themes).

Well, I finally found time to read it this month, and finished it yesterday, just in time for the end of January.

This post isn’t meant to be a review, or critique; it is merely for record. But I would recommend the book for sure (here’s the link to buy it off Hive, which supports independent bookstores). I also found this interesting NYT fashion piece about the story, with some great photos.

The makings of a cybertrooper

I woke up yesterday to a text message from a producer at BFM Radio in Malaysia asking if I’d talk about cybertroopers, in view of the recently released annual report for 2020 on organised social media manipulation by the Oxford Internet Institute.

It was a good thing I had read the report, and read a draft of the Malaysia case study document (I reviewed a version during the research process as a “country expert”, as I did for the 2019 edition as well) which I don’t think is available yet, so I knew about its contents.

You can listen to the interview here. I am currently working on a book on this building on from my doctoral research.

Last trip with the parents

Facebook today reminded me that five years ago today, my parents and I landed in Siem Reap. My dad would pass away just under a year after that trip, so it was essentially our last trip together as a trio. This was us at the airport.

Photo quality from 5 years ago alone is so awful. But I digress.

That trip will always be memorable for me because of it was my last trip with dad. Angkor Watt was one of the few places he had wanted to visit that he never made it to (the other two were Japan and Hawaii) so I’m glad I was able to accompany them there. It wasn’t easy – by this stage, his dementia was quite advanced and he was already prone to have seizures (there was an episode at one of the temples when we visited Angkor Watt, so mum sat down with him for a bit while I explored a bit – thankfully not serious).

I really enjoyed the trip as well so much so that I wanted to revisit again. If I didn’t get my scholarship to head over to the UK later that year, I think I would already have gone back to spend an extended time writing and working remotely. I enjoyed the culture, a nice mix of touristy and non-touristy spots, the people were great and it was cosy as a city.

In 2019, my second sister ee che and I took mum to Vietnam. As a family who loves travelling, I look forward to when we can move around again so that I can take my mum somewhere else.

First day back at work

Following a tough semester last year, the university was closed for an extra few days. Staff needed it and I had grand plans of working on a book proposal, but Covid-19 had other plans for me.

Because of that, I ended up taking an extra few days off work last week on sick leave to recover. I’m not fully well yet but returned to work today in preparation for the return to teaching next week.

I needed to take breaks to rest – the fatigue is still bothering me and some symptoms have reappeared over the weekend – but it was nice to be doing something productive again after a couple of weeks of convalescing.

“Asking” for forgiveness

I had totally forgotten about the incident but Facebook today reminded me that 12 years ago, I took a full-body dip in this fish pool at a spa located in Merchant Square. I don’t remember its name or if it is still around.

But the story about that day wasn’t really to do with my allowing hundreds (thousands?) of fishes to nibble at every bit of my body. Not by a long shot.

The short story is that after this dip, I was in one of the rooms getting a massage when someone barged into to explain to me that the locker room had been broken into and that all my posessions had been stolen.

The long story goes like this:

In 2009, I was invited to be a judge for a spa awards. This meant that for months, I would receive vouchers for various spa outlets in the country and then fill in a form with my ratings and comments.

I don’t remember all the details but have a foggy memory of signing in, sent to the changing room where I put my wallet, phone and other items into a small locker. I then went into the pool pictures above followed by my massage (I don’t remember if I went back to the changing room or I went straight to the massage).

Anyway, once they told me that my things had been stolen, I dressed up and sat in the waiting area. I had expected them to call the police but instead, I was told that they knew who did it and was looking for the perpetrator. I was very confused.

It took a while, many phone calls, lots of hushed conversations and suddenly, I was told that they had found the person (in a coffeeshop nearby?).

Now, here’s the thing, they wanted that person to come to me and ask for my forgiveness. This was something I was completely uncomfortable with – what kind of gangster movie was I in? I declined and said, I only want my stuff back. I didn’t even want to press charges.

The manager (boss? owner?) spoke to me on the phone and said that I need to meet that person who did it. I kept refusing. In the end, the compromise was that they made that person call me to admit wrongdoing and apologised.

I don’t remember if at this point, I had all my items already and just didn’t know how to excuse myself, or if I was still stuck there because my things haven’t come back to me yet.

All I know is that I had what was probably the most uncomfortable conversation in my life.

Eventually, I managed to leave and went straight home to tell my parents the story! I also told the organisers that I couldn’t judge that place – how do you rate an experience that was disrupted that way?

Anyway, the story is now recorded on here for posterity. I’m not sure I told many people this story even.

Only took 9 days before I missed one day of blogging here for 2021. Oh well … I totally forgot.